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Reporter debrief: State officials explain pivot on school COVID testing amid omicron surge

A man delivers a press briefing at a podium while another man translates his remarks into sign language.
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Gov. Phil Scott delivers his weekly COVID briefing on Jan. 11, 2022.

Gov. Phil Scott and members of his cabinet provided updates Tuesday, Jan. 11, on the state's ongoing pandemic response.

Officials explained a controversial decision to pivot toward a new public school testing strategy. They said the highly contagious omicron variant rendered the old plan ineffective.

Vermont Edition's Mikaela Lefrak spoke to reporter Lexi Krupp after the briefing about the new plan and other takeaways. Their conversation is below and has been edited for clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: So we got some clarity in that press conference from officials about why case numbers have not yet been released this week. What did we learn?

Lexi Krupp: There was a technical glitch with the state's system that resulted in a delay in folks getting their test results back, and now the state's back to the normal two- to three-day turnaround for PCR tests. But they did say that, over the last few days, about 4,000 PCR tests have come back positive. And most of those cases are omicron. We know from data throughout New England that the omicron strain comprises about 96% of cases in our region.

Where are we right now with hospitalization rates? How are hospitals handling omicron?

They're busy — there's not that many available hospital beds right now relative to what we've seen in the last few months. They're pretty low. But we do know that we're seeing fewer people hospitalized than we would expect with the delta variant, and also fewer fewer people in the ICU, given those high case counts.

More from VPR: As omicron spreads, this Vt. public health expert says top-down approach to virus, and risk, should shift

And I also want to add here that we heard that cases are expected to continue to go up over the course of this month, and then perhaps hopefully start to slow in February — that's also expected to be a national trend. Now, the state is going to be rolling out a new rapid test distribution program. What are the details of that?

So [Wednesday,] you should be able to go online to the Department of Health website and order up to two kits of rapid tests. And then those tests would be mailed to you.

We also got some much-anticipated news about the the way that schools should be handling this omicron surge from Secretary of Education Dan French and other members of the Scott administration. Now, Secretary French and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine both said that the administration's previous Test-to-Stay program wasn't really working because omicron moves too fast — school employees were overburdened by the program. So what is the new plan? What's it look like?

Yeah, so they're changing who is considered a close contact. And that's trying to just simplify things. Instead of having the school nurses go and make these long lists of contacts — the 15 minutes and six feet and all that — they're just saying, "Anyone who's in the same class with someone who tested positive, they are now considered a close contact." And so if there's that positive case, everyone in the class will be notified. The administration described this as being more conservative about who's considered a close contact, and again, just trying to relieve some of the workload for school nurses, who they continued to say have just been really overburdened throughout the pandemic and certainly in recent weeks.

And then they talked about a change in who can test, so there won't be the surveillance PCR tests that we've been seeing. They said that unvaccinated students can do this Test-to-Stay program with antigen tests for five days only that'll be administrated by their families, rather than the school. And then they mentioned that vaccinated students will also have some access to antigen tests, but it was not really clear to the extent to which they would. And I'm sure that'll just depend on the the availability of these tests, which has been a continued question mark.

I'm guessing, though, that despite all of these administration officials kind of confidently rolling out this plan, it's still not going to appease some teachers and school administrators and families who are very overburdened and stressed by this COVID crisis, as all of us are. Are there any holes in the administration's plan that stuck out particularly to you?

There were a couple of questions about whether it matters that now it's the responsibility of families rather than school officials to be honest about whether their kids have COVID and send them to schools. That's certainly a question. And I mean, I think the other really big question here is whether schools will be able to have enough tests and appropriate masks in in hand to roll out this program.

Well, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine also issued some guidance around masking. That was news to me, because last week on Vermont Edition he told us that, "Any mask is better than no mask." That was really the message that he was driving forward. But today he said that cloth masks were no longer really effective against omicron. What did he recommend instead?

He said single cloth masks have to go — you should layer up. And really, I think the gold standard is the KN95 masks. And he says that the state has a plan to distribute surgical masks and KN95 masks — ideally in testing sites, vaccination sites and Human Services field offices and schools — but we didn't really hear details about that. They just said that it's in the works coming up in the next few weeks.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Lexi Krupp @KruppLexi.

Mikaela Lefrak joined Vermont Public in 2021 as co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
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